Book review: All That’s Dead, by Stuart MacBride

After last year’s superlative The Blood Road, I wondered what Stuart MacBride was going to do next. I needn’t have worried – All That’s Dead is a much slower burn, and a very different kind of case for Logan McRae, but it’s a satisfying read, and a hugely thoughtful novel to boot.
Stuart MacBride PIC: Michael GillenStuart MacBride PIC: Michael Gillen
Stuart MacBride PIC: Michael Gillen

It opens with a beautiful simile, “The study cupped itself around him like a hand around a lit match, guarding the flame until it lit the fuse”, and it swiftly becomes apparent that statement will resonate throughout the whole novel, for MacBride is tackling the issue of Scottish independence – light the blue touchpaper and stand well back.

We open with something very nasty happening to anti-independence campaigner Professor Nicholas Wilson – a colleague finds his kitchen table covered in blood and the professor missing. Meanwhile, Inspector McRae is returning to work for his first day after a year off on the sick due to being stabbed, to find his new boss in Professional Standards has assigned his desk to someone else – though she gives him a case anyway. As DI King deals with the missing professor, McRae is investigating claims that King was once part of a Nationalist terrorist group and is detailed to shadow him during the case to ensure all runs smoothly.

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Judging by the tweets Detective Sergeant Roberta Steel finds, Prof Wilson has plenty of enemies keen to challenge his strident stance, just as he hadn’t shied away from returning the insults in kind. But how did one user know the professor was missing long before the police did?

As McRae and DC “Tufty” Quirrel are enlisting help in tracing the Twitter account, a package is delivered which suggests the professor may not have long to live – if he isn’t dead already. And there’s another missing person: Matt Lansdale, a pro-Union, pro-Brexit Conservative councillor.

McRae and King home in on a suspect – but Haiden Lochhead isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so is it likely he masterminded the abductions of the professor and the councillor?

In the search for Haiden, McRae and Steel interview his girlfriend, Mhari, handling her gently as she exhibits signs of being a domestic abuse victim. Just after she leaves the police station, the council calls to say there’s a suspicious package in the office of the missing Lansdale, Tufty finds out who sent the first tweet about the professor’s disappearance, and the slow burn of the novel ignites with an intensity to match the heat of the unusually sweltering summer weather outside.

There is no let-up for McRae or the reader until he has unravelled the knots of DI King’s past, Haiden’s present whereabouts and whether those who have been abducted have a future.

There are opinions aplenty splashed around, but All That’s Dead isn’t really about the debate over Scottish independence (neither side comes off well). In truth, the novel is about people and relationships – from the tensions of Haiden and Mhari, to McRae’s dealings with junior colleagues which are filled with affectionate humour. More specifically, it’s about peer pressure and getting out of your depth, and the fact that while you can spend your life trying to do good to make up for all your long-buried bad choices, they will not stay hidden forever. And most of all, with terrifying realism, it’s about the excuses people will find to justify their actions. - Louise Fairbairn

All That’s Dead, by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, £16.99